New guidelines to help brand owners avoid accusations of cultural appropriation

Posted on February 23, 2021 in Intellectual Property , Commercial (Tags:)

Businesses which are considering adopting Māori words or imagery in their branding now have the benefit of a set of guidelines to help them reference Māori culture respectfully and avoid being accused of cultural appropriation. Karaitiana Taiuru, a Māori cultural brand advisor who has been working as an advocate for Māori intellectual property rights for more than 20 years, says he put together the guidelines in response to witnessing the significant damage to brands and personal reputations that is often caused when people incorporate elements of traditional Māori culture, including Māori language and designs, in a way that is offensive to Māori or contrary to Māori values. In most cases, businesses are well down the branding path before realising their mistake and are often mortified at causing offence.

For example, last year the owners of a leather goods shop in Wellington were bombarded with abuse and threats after naming their shop “Huruhuru”, which translates as wool, fur or hair but is also commonly used in te reo to refer to pubic hair. More recently, Whakatāne council apologised to iwi after using the phrase “he taonga te wai”, meaning “water is a treasure”, to encourage people to conserve water, a move many considered inappropriate because the phrase had been widely used by Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa in its campaign against the grant of consents allowing the expansion of water bottling plant Otakiri Springs.

Of course cultural appropriation is not only a New Zealand issue. Big overseas fashion brands are regularly accused of cultural appropriation. Last month Australian fashion label Zimmerman apologised for the offence caused by its use of a traditional garment from the Oaxaca region in Mexico as inspiration for its $800 tunic dress “without appropriate credit to the cultural owners of this form of dress”. Danish brand Cecilie Copenhagen has an entire range of clothes, popular with New Zealand women, which uses a design heavily inspired by the Palestinian keffiyeh which has been a symbol of Palestinian struggle since the 1930s. Celebrities are also frequently blasted for culturally-inappropriate fashion choices. Examples which spring to mind are singer Adele pictured wearing Bantu knots (a traditional African hairstyle) and Katy Perry dressing up like a geisha for her 2013 AMA performance.

It is often argued that there is a thin line between inspiration and appropriation, and what some see as appropriation others see as appreciation. The response to this is that it is not for the outsiders of the culture to decide whether something should be offensive; if the people whose culture and history are being referenced are offended, then that should be enough.

Regardless, for most small businesses, the risk of reputational damage is simply not worth it, not to mention the wasted costs if you are forced to re-brand. That’s why it’s important to do your research on the potential origins of a brand name or logo at the beginning of your branding process and if necessary involve advisors who have the knowledge to advise on the culture you are referencing. If you are using Māori words or imagery, seek advice from a te reo expert or cultural advisor. Mr Taiuru’s Māori Culture Guidelines, which can be downloaded from, provide advice on aspects such as how to consult with affected groups, inappropriate associations of words and concepts, use of Māori names, symbols and flags, taonga species, and who can use, .mā, and domain names.

Be aware that a trade mark application containing these elements will likely be referred to the IPONZ Māori Trade Marks Advisory Committee who will consider whether your use of the trade mark in relation to certain goods and services could be offensive to Māori, in which case registration of the trade mark can be refused under section 17(1)(c) of the Trade Marks Act 2002. Don’t rely on the Māori Advisory Committee to do your research for you though; the owners of the “Huruhuru” shop were all the more surprised by the backlash they received because they had been given the go-ahead by the IPONZ advisory committee.

While the appeal of incorporating elements of Māori language and culture may be to invoke a sense of “kiwiana”, remember that the strongest brands are those that are completely novel – such as a made-up word like “Google”. The more distinctive the brand, the less likely you are to be offending someone’s culture or infringing someone’s intellectual property rights, and the easier your brand will be to protect and market.

Rachel Laing, Senior Solicitor